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Ancient Villages Uncovered at Future Site of City Nature Preserve

By Benjamin Woodard | October 22, 2013 6:38am
 The West Ridge Nature Preserve is a planned 20-acre park at the edge of Rosehill Cemetery.
West Ridge Nature Preserve
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WEST RIDGE — Ancient artifacts from an "enormous" Native American settlement were uncovered along a gravel and sand ridge that passes through the land that is soon to become a city park near Rosehill Cemetery, officials said.

The findings are not expected to delay development of land, which was bought from Rosehill in 2011 for $7.7 million and has sat largely untouched for decades.

Phil Millhouse, an archeologist with the Illinois Archeological Survey, said he and his colleagues performed "shovel tests" on the site earlier this year when they came across fragments of arrow points, knives, ceramics and possibly a cooking kit.

"It turned out there was a very large prehistoric village on that ridge of sand and gravel that runs off the lake," he said. The "enormous" site surrounded by wetlands had been occupied possibly thousands of years before Europeans settled the area.

Although the findings would "not in any way" affect the development of the West Ridge Nature Preserve, the much-anticipated 20-acre park at Peterson and Western avenues, the Chicago Park District plans to take special precautions when building pathways over historically significant land, said Brad Koldehoff, chief archeologist with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"We've already looked at avoiding and minimizing the impacts," he said.

Koldehoff said the survey was conducted and reviewed by the state earlier this year to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act.

The ancient "trash dumps" and "living sites" believed to occupy the area were old enough that they could not be tied directly to any modern Indian tribe, he said.

A Chicago Park District spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to requests for comment about the district's plan for the area.

There aren't many accounts of the prehistoric connection to Chicago — especially for the city's Bowmanville neighborhood, just south of the proposed park site — but for decades neighbors have known of the area's prehistoric legacy.

"I was really fascinated to learn that our entire neighborhood had been a part of a native habitation," said 20-year Bowmanville resident Barry Kafka. "I’m frustrated that we don’t know more about it."

Kafka said oral history in the neighborhood suggested that since the early 1900s, people had been digging up ancient artifacts in their back yards. But, unfortunately, the history had never been properly recorded to help reconstruct the lives of humans who lived thousands of years ago in what is now modern Chicago.

"Some of these artifacts ended up hundreds of miles away in a collectors' personal belongings," he said.

Some of the area, too, had been part of the Budlong Pickle Farm in the early 1900s and was tilled. The portion of land formerly owned by Rosehill, however, had been set aside for future grave sites and left largely untouched since 1859.

"Great quantities and varieties of Indian artifacts were found here, including utensils of copper," a report about Bowmanville read in the Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper on March 21, 1942. "The excavations uncovered an Indian grave in which 14 skeletons were arranged like spokes of a wheel, with feet together and heads forming a wide circle."

The prehistoric grave site was located along California Avenue, 30 feet north of Foster Avenue, according to the article.

Another Tribune report, dated March 24, 1958, told of Bowmanville resident Phillip C. Schupp, a retired florist who had amassed a collection of rare area artifacts, such as stone ax-heads, flint spear tips, arrowheads, knives, pottery and trinkets.

A museum curator was quoted as saying the trove was the "largest and most extensive collection existing anywhere of artifacts left by men who lived within the city limits of Chicago in prehistoric times."

The collection was also referenced by researcher Albert Scharf, who compiled a history of Chicago-area tribes at the turn of the century.

Today, the collection's whereabouts are uncertain.

"So much of our history has been lost through disruption," said George Strack, a historian for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, which in prehistoric times may have inhabited the Chicago area.

He said the artifacts uncovered by the state survey could have been left by Miami people in the 1700s.

"Chicago was a very cosmopolitan area in terms of tribes," he said. "It’s always been a place where it was the intersection of trade where people have come together for hundreds of years, maybe thousands of years."

He's really hoping officials will "reach out and consult with tribes. There’s certainly family stories, individual stories. There’s not a lot of recognition of the native history of Chicago. I think that’s direly missing from the history of Chicago."

Millhouse, the archeologist, said he and his colleagues were compiling a report on the Bowmanville and Rosehill sites. They've yet to release photographs of the discovered artifacts.

At one time, the area had been visited by prominent researchers, he said, but since then most written records have been lost.

"Then what happened," he said, "is it passed into myth."